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Enhancing Newly Arrived Students' English Language Proficiency

Researchers studying immigrant children and children of immigrants assert that “.. .the future of the West in economic, cultural, and social terms—this is not too bold a formulation—will depend on how well immigrant origin youth have been prepared to replace aging natives” (Alba et al. 2013). These findings suggest that investment in immigrant youth is imperative for their success, starting with investments in English language learning.

Knowledge of the English language is a critical measure of and prerequisite for successful integration. Fluency in English correlates with upward mobility and attainment of economic, social, and cultural capital. Immigrants who are not able to communicate in English cannot represent themselves or benefit from a dialogue without the help of an interpreter. Communication barriers in turn often lead to tensions between newcomers and established residents. Participation in US institutions and meaningful interaction with the mainstream community also requires language skills.

Schools can help the unaccompanied children gain fluency in spoken English. Nevertheless, proficiency in reading and writing in English will very much depend on the quality of ESL classes, the quality of the overall academic program, and the literacy levels of their family and community members. This study showed that many Latino children had not experienced the pleasure of going to the library for story hour. “She goes to church right across the street from a public library, but she has never visited [the library],” said a volunteer tutor about her tutee.

Lack of reading skills is a big problem among undocumented children. Another tutor praised the sixth grader he was working with: “He is a smart kid, good at math, except word problems. He is in sixth grade but he reads at a second grade level. He is embarrassed by his poor reading skills, so he refuses to read, which is making it harder for him to improve.” Programs focusing on teaching the incoming children English must integrate classroom instruction with activities aimed at improving family and community literacy and at building on the assets of family members.

Older teens may have to enter the labor force immediately in order to repay the money their parents paid smugglers. Adolescent males are pressured especially hard to find a job as soon as possible to repay the debt and to contribute to the family’s income. Both older boys and girls may be encouraged to choose work over school. Forgoing formal education in favor of waged employment will most certainly slow down their linguistic integration and upward mobility. Although it is possible to find work without an English language ability, language skills affect immigrants’ capacity to earn sufficient pay to raise household income above poverty level.

English language training is available in many local communities. A wide variety of ESL training programs can be found in virtually every community college and many public libraries also offer English language and family literacy programs for immigrants. Those charged with facilitating integration of the newly arrived Central American children and youth do not have to reinvent the wheel. Good referral mechanisms can link the newcomers to appropriate programs, be it public school or public library-based ones, family literacy activities offered by ethnic community centers, or alternative high schools.

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